The Rookie’s Dream
Bungie Entertainment, 2009
Okay, so maybe it seems a conceit to open a review of Halo 3: ODST (that’s Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) with a quote from Dante, but it’s not a conceit I’m alone in. Central to the plot of Bungie Entertainment’s newest installment in the Halo franchise is a descent through nine subterranean levels with the guidance of an artificial intelligence named ‘Vergil’. In the space of this shift between vowels, of course, a vast space of difference is set up; the Divine Comedy is probably as relevant to Halo 3: ODST as it is to the upcoming Dante’s Inferno from Visceral Games. That is to say: not particularly. These allusions are attempts at a literary tone, and while Dante’s Inferno may require such a tone, Halo 3: ODST certainly does not. On its own it constitutes a compelling literary endeavor.
Some background is necessary, however.
Set in the future, midway through the 26th century, Halo is a franchise whose central, canonical components are first person shooter games. From the eyes of the protagonist, the player directs action through various combat zones, battling enemies. The enemies in the Halo series are (most often) a coalition of alien forces known as the Covenant, a theocratic union who, upon encountering humanity, have dubbed them ‘heretics’ and ‘abominations’ and decided they must be destroyed. It is all-out war and, as introductory text in ODST explains, we, humanity, are losing. The events of ODST are set just after Earth is attacked, and a Covenant capital ship has assaulted the African Megalopolis of New Mombasa. Orbitally stationed troops are dropped in pods in order to perform a near-suicidal strike against the Covenant vessel. Amongst these soldiers is the player character and his squad.
A squad that is voiced by none other than three members of the Firefly cast, Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin and Alan Tudyk, as well as Battlestar Galactica‘s own immaculate Tricia Helfer. The appeal to the hardcore nerd fancrowd is obvious, but it’s not a simple cashing in. They play their roles excellently, particularly Fillion (a devoted Halo player himself, from what I’m told) who brings his own brand of folksy command fully to bear.
The player['s] character is silent and essentially nameless. Known only as ‘the Rookie,’ he remains a wordless participant whose experience frames the narrative as it unfolds; much of the story is not experienced by the Rookie directly but instead as flashbacks. And it is this narrative structure that I think makes Halo 3: ODST something special. As observed by Joystiq’s Richard Mitchell, ODST heavily engages the tradition of film noir. Conscious decisions about the style of art, music, narrative, and even gameplay will remind some players (and many old-time movie fans) of murky atmosphere and cynical narration that are staples of noir.
The framing action takes place after the fact, ‘6 Hours After Drop’ as the orienting text informs us, with the Rookie coming-to after an atmospheric disturbance knocks his drop pod off course while descending into New Mombasa. Daylight has faded, and the Rookie must traverse a moonlit city under Covenant occupation. In order to regroup with the rest of his squad, to discover if they are even alive, the Rookie (guided by the player) locates pieces of evidence, artifacts, traces that are scattered about the nested streets of the futuristic city.
These traces – a bent and useless sniper rifle, a spent cartridge of medical foam, a helmet embedded into a flickering screen – mark the passage of the Rookie’s companions. The noir trope of the detective is being playfully engaged with here. Locating a trace sets off a flashback, transferring the player into the consciousness of one of the Rookie’s squadmates, revealing the manner in which this trace got to where it was; at least, this is the assumption one immediately makes. A closer look at the text of the game, however, reveals moments of uncertainty, gaps in memory and possible knowledge, that suggest reading ODST as a oneiristic text, a narrative seeped in waking dreams, with the Rookie as the dreamer.
The first trace the Rookie discovers is a helmet, embedded in a screen. This helmet belonged to Captain Veronica Dare (Tricia Helfer’s character), and its violent placement is foreboding. Its discovery induces the first flashback, set ‘Immediately After Drop’, with the player behind the eyes of Gunnery Sergeant Edward Buck (Fillion). Motivated to a large degree by his feelings for Captain Dare, with whom he had a romantic liaison, he battles hard to try and reach her location. However, when he finds Dare’s crashed pod, she’s no longer there. The flashback ends, and we are again with the Rookie, who sets aside the damaged helmet to continue his search.
Close attention must be paid to the disjunction that takes place here. The flashback, while linked to the Rookie’s discovery of Dare’s helmet, cannot be accounted for with the character’s possible knowledge. Buck doesn’t find the helmet, the Rookie does, so there is no spatial connection, and there is nothing in the helmet that could tell the Rookie what happened to Buck, only what may have happened to Captain Dare. The flashback, when framed by the Rookie’s discovery, can only be a fantasy of the Rookie. Certain knowledge of Buck’s fight is not possible, only speculated; even his motivation, his desire for Dare, couldn’t be known by the Rookie, because the Rookie was asleep during the cinematic prologue where Buck and Dare’s mutual desire is indicated. But, taking the structure of dream narrative and applying it backwards to the cinematic, it is entirely feasible to say that the Rookie dreamed the prologue encounter between Dare and Buck, an assertion that would build the necessary epistemological bridge to the flashback. The Rookie dreams the desire then, when he finds Dare’s helmet and the signs of violence around it, he imagines Buck’s distress and fantasizes about his fight to locate Dare.
The structure of artifact/flashback continues, almost always with some element of ambiguity and uncertainty clouding the relation between the Rookie and the flashback/fantasy that results. The discovery of a robotic eye kicks off a vision of an epic charge where jeeps with fifty caliber machine guns roll across a wildlife reserve, evoking images of motorized battles during the African Theatre of World War II, even within the setting of a super-city. A sniper rifle is found, barrel bent entirely, hanging from a power cable. The flashback recounts a battle high atop the mega-skyscrapers of New Mombasa, during which the rifle is knocked off the edge, disappearing into a layer of clouds below. These clouds, the gray mist separating the sunlit heroism of the Rookie’s squadmates and the Rookie’s own nighttime investigations, is the veil of subjectivity, a barrier that denies absolute knowledge, and marks the edge of dreaming. Each flashback possesses a cinematic element and swelling soundtrack that contrasts sharply with the moonlight and jazz of the Rookie’s wanderings.
gameplay and Q&A with Bungie staff at the E3 convention
Wanderings that do not follow a straight narrative format. After the first flashback, the traces can be encountered in any order, both heightening the sense of investigation and problematizing the very goal of investigation: the Rookie is trying to construct a history, but the process by which he does so is unstructured, ahistorical. The sense of directionlessness is heightened by the level design; the city streets are made of nested enclaves, uniformly dark but made distinct and cellular by large doors, producing a labyrinthine experience. (To be honest, I got pretty damn lost once in a while, and keeping in mind the artistic validity of the choice was sometimes all that kept me from cursing with frustration).
There is only one presence in the game that could bridge the gaps in knowledge that trouble the text of ODST. Vergil, the superintendent AI for New Mombasa, injects himself into the spaces between flashback and investigation, fantasy and consciousness. His gaze is used to make ‘establishing shots’ of the Rookie, the traces and the flashbacks, producing some sort of unifying context. Vergil is present throughout the entire game, his round head and expressive eyes appearing on screens and displays all over New Mombasa. It is in a Vergil-face’s eye that Dare’s helmet is lodged, and this half-blinding of the omnipresent guarantor of history cannot go without note.
The narrative sutures itself entirely in the end, after all the clues have been gathered and the Rookie has pieced together a cohesive story. While normally all the clues would add up to tell the Rookie where to go, the answer actually emerges from an intercepted transmission from Captain Dare, unrelated to the recovered traces. From here on out, however, there is a straight thrust towards the end. The Rookie descends nine levels to find Dare and, ultimately, Vergil. Vergil has suffered damage, his relevant memory banks having been subsumed and preserved by an alien life form whose safe evacuation is the objective of the rest of the game. Recovering both the lost Captain (who is never present or played in the flashbacks) and the memories of Vergil, the Rookie can return to the surface where the sun has risen, pushing back the shadows that previously shrouded his knowledge and demanded recourse to fantasy, while simultaneously making fact of his previous fantasies. The morning rises and his dreams are made true.
This ending, in its very departure from the structure of ambiguity and dream, underscores the importance of fantasy in the text. The only antidote to uncertainty is the recovery both the guarantor of history and the object of desire. This does not, however, banish fantasy and bring us to reality, though the emergence of the sun and the defragmentation of the narrative suggest that this is the sentiment. Rather, this reforming of standard narrative points to the role that fantasy plays in the composition of history. In order for the appearance of logical progression to exist, there must be the establishment and recovery an omniscient superintellect, a ‘big Other’ to borrow terminology from French psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacque Lacan. The only vector to this ‘big Other’, however, is the object of desire (Captain Dare/Tricia Helfer, whose appearances in Maxim and Playboy make her the desired body par excellence), whose trace (the helmet) half-blinds Vergil.
An ambiguity is set up here, one furthered by the nature of the flashbacks – while the gameplay of the Rookie’s investigations is ahistoric and full of wanderings, the fantasy histories are themed: one is a ‘sniper mission’, one a ‘tank mission’, another a ‘last stand’. There is a ‘cavalry charge’ and even a spell of ‘aerial combat’. They appear very much in the compartmentalized, thematic form history is given to us, neatly set up along specific lines and offered with a cinematic flair that also ties directly into their roles as different sorts of games.
The history in this game is not undermined by a literary fantasy, it’s built on that very fantasy; it’s fantasy that begins, in the only flashback that cannot be encountered via wandering (that must be found before investigative wandering can begin) – with the imagining of Buck’s desire for Dare. The implications are fairly bleak here: that history, whether fair or foul, is a dream, a dream that we convince ourselves we have woken from to discover it was true all along, a prophecy whose self-fulfillment we never notice.
There is another narrative, a collected narrative in stills and audio files, that the player can acquire by finding certain spots throughout the wandering, and I admit that I didn’t finish gathering these story pieces before I finished the rest of the game. Therefore I am unable to speak to what role these fragments play. But I have every intention of going back and hunting them down, piece by piece, until I have the whole picture. This is a game well worth sinking into, a dream worthy of analysis, an investigation that, for me, hasn’t quite ended.
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, The Sims franchise, and video game music.